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  • Translating the Qur'an in an Age of Nationalism: Print Culture and Modern Islam in Turkey by M. Brett Wilson
  • Michelangelo Guida
M. Brett Wilson. Translating the Qur'an in an Age of Nationalism: Print Culture and Modern Islam in Turkey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. 325 pp. Cloth, $85. ISBN: 978-0198719434.

In the month of Ramadan 1874, an Ottoman state press reproduced the acclaimed muṣḥaf of calligrapher Şekerzade Mehmed Efendi with the use of photolithographic printing. The project was led by the celebrated intellectual Ahmet Cevdet, who was able to address the ulema's concerns and chose the best technique for the first printed edition of the Qur'an in the empire. Sixty-one years later, in a completely different political context, the Muslim scholar Elmalılı Hamdi Yazır published the first volume of his Hak Dini Kur'an Dili, a lengthy commentary and "translation" of the Qur'an sponsored by the secular Turkish Republic.

Brett Wilson's fascinating book, Translating the Qur'an in an Age of Nationalism, focuses on these two significant events. The first three chapters are dedicated to the issue of printing the Qur'an in the Ottoman Empire. The following three chapters concentrate on the debates on the translation of the holy book in the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century mainly in Egypt and Turkey. The seventh chapter, though, focuses exclusively on the Turkish translations of the Qur'an in the early years of the nationalist republic. The final chapter is dedicated to the conclusions.

The printing of the Qur'an in Istanbul, more than four centuries after Gutenberg's first edition of the Bible and more than a hundred and fifty years after the establishment of a Muslim printing press in Istanbul, was not a technological breakthrough. However, after decades of legal restrictions on printing and import of printed copies from Europe, Iran, and Egypt, it was the expression of new relations between the holy book and educated elites as well as a different relationship between the emerging intellectual bourgeoisie and the ulema, who were progressively losing authority and public influence in the Ottoman Empire.

In the expanding Ottoman education system of the nineteenth century, in which students received a modern education, printed books were preferable to manuscripts both in terms of content and cost (p. 44). However, as Wilson demonstrated, before the spreading of the printed copies of the Qur'an in the empire, a manuscript muṣḥaf was not affordable for the great majority of the population and often not even reliable. Nevertheless, on the one hand, the ulema and scribes were hostile to the printing of the holy book because of different concerns on the possible act of disrespect during press and binding as well as because of their fears of losing their prerogatives. On the other hand, state centralization and the urgent need for a modern education saw the emergence of new intellectuals, who made different attempts to print muṣḥafs [End Page 206] as a way of imposing a new approach to and a relationship with the basic religious texts without an intermediator. It is no accident that the first effort to print a muṣḥaf was made by Namık Kemal in 1871 during his exile in London. Namık Kemal defended the printing of the Qur'an as an unavoidable advance in technology that would make the text available to schoolchildren around the empire (p. 61).

Two years after Namık Kemal's enterprise, the Ottoman state finally decided to sponsor the printing of the Qur'an to provide copies to students in the expanding school system. Soon it became also part of the Pan-Islamist policies to promote Islamic unity and the centrality of the Ottoman Caliphate in the Muslim world. Thousands of copies were sent to distant provinces such as Yemen (p.78) but also to regions outside the empire such as Java (p. 76).

Chapter 3 is dedicated to the changes of religious literature imposed by printing, the increase of literacy, and an impressive translation process in the second half of the nineteenth century. Larger access to Muslim sources, though, caused a...


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